Protest Groups

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Protest Groups

The United States was created by a revolution and American history is replete with examples of protest groups attempting to alter governmental policies and social and cultural patterns. One of the first things U.S. school children read about is the Boston Tea Party, where a group of colonial protestors, disguised as Native Americans, boarded British ships and destroyed valuable cargoes of tea to demonstrate their opposition to onerous British tax policies. But protest in America only became part of the popular culture during the 1960s, when television brought the strife and turmoil of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement into the living rooms of the American people. Since that turbulent era, sit-ins, marches, demonstrations, and boycotts have become common protest tactics practiced by various interest groups attempting to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

The nineteenth century witnessed the birth of several important protest groups in the United States. The abolitionists sought the immediate and uncompensated end of slavery. Anti-slavery groups were present as far back as the colonial era, but most had not advocated complete freedom or equality for blacks. For example, the American Colonization Society, which began in 1817, attempted to solve America's race problem by shipping willing blacks back to Africa. In 1831, New England publisher William Lloyd Garrison condemned this gradual approach to ending slavery and called for immediate emancipation. These so-called radical abolitionists included prominent ministers and other activists in the northern states and they flooded the country with anti-slavery literature. At first, they sought to convince slave owners that slavery was a sin and attempted to secure voluntary emancipation. Later, they turned to political action and were potent enough to produce two political parties: the Liberty Party in the early 1840s and the Free-Soil Party later in that same decade.

Also during the antebellum era, the Women's Suffrage Movement began. Women had always been kept politically and legally subordinate to men; they could not own property, make wills, vote, attend college, or retain wages they had earned. As women became active in various reform activities and social crusades, they began to seek equality. The official beginning of this women's movement dates from an 1848 meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, where a women's right to vote was pronounced as a national goal. Under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony, a variety of women's protest groups championed this cause for the next generation. Some states did pass suffrage laws but it was not until the passage of 19th amendment in 1919 that women gained the right to vote nationally.

The late nineteenth century saw the rise of two different protest groups: farmers and labor activists. Associations of farmers organized in the Midwest after the Civil War. Railroad abuses and high shipping rates compelled U.S. farmers to seek regulatory legislation. In addition, overproduction, resulting from the introduction of sophisticated farm machinery, brought a decline in the price of crops. Farmers and farm protest groups sought to redress these problems with federal regulations. Rural protest groups included the National Grange, the Farmer's Alliances, the National Farmers Union, and various political coalitions like the Greenback Party and the Populist Party.

In that same period, industrial laborers began to protest working conditions. The rapid rise of industrialization after the Civil War stimulated the growth of labor unions at the local, state, and national levels. Unions and labor organizations sought to alleviate dangerous and unhealthy working conditions and resolve problems concerning pensions, disability pay, and child labor. Leading labor protest groups included the Knights of Labor, the National Labor Union, the American Federation of Labor, the Molly Maguires, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The contemporary American view of protests has unquestionably emanated from two mid-twentieth-century issues: Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. During the 1950s, blacks began to challenge the degrading system of segregation in the American South. Leading groups included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Southern blacks used a variety of protest tactics such as boycotts, sit-ins, and marches in attempting to achieve racial equality and end segregation. Perhaps the most famous protest was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56. When Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to move to the back of a segregated city bus, black leaders organized a one-year boycott that inspired black protest groups and eventually ended the segregation of public buses.

In the early 1960s black college students throughout the South passively sat at segregated department store lunch counters in order to force integration. Often, these students were attacked by local whites and carried off to jail for this "illegal" practice. In 1961 CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a group of Freedom Riders in an attempt to further integrate bus systems in the South; the Freedom Riders embarked on a long bus ride through the South. In Alabama, they were beaten by white hoodlums and their bus was bombed. The federal government finally dispatched marshals to protect the Freedom Riders although they were ultimately arrested and sent to jail.

The largest demonstration during the Civil Rights era took place in Washington, D.C., in August, 1963. Civil Rights groups organized the March on Washington to pressure the federal government to support the civil rights of African Americans. More than a quarter of a million people gathered and heard Martin Luther King, Jr., give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. African American protest groups continued to organize throughout the 1960s using sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and voter registration drives in their efforts to gain equality in the South and in the nation as a whole.

The Vietnam War provided a second major protest direction in the 1960s. A peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based upon Quaker and Unitarian beliefs. While protest groups were active during many of America's wars, they failed to gain popular support until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race brought about groups like the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), Women Strike for Peace (WSP), and the Student Peace Union (SPU). The SPU not only wanted to stop the production of nuclear weapons, but also sought to restructure society on a more equitable basis. But the SPU never became an effective student interest group and faded away by 1964; its banner was taken up by a more active and successful Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

SDS, centered on college campuses, published the Port Huron Statement in 1962, expressing its disillusionment with the American military-industrial-academic establishment. SDS cited the uncertainty of life in Cold-War America and the degradation of African Americans in the South as examples of social and cultural drift, and called for a revolution of sorts among American youth. Throughout the first years of its existence, SDS focused on domestic concerns. But in 1965, when the United States began bombing North Vietnam, SDS and other student protest groups began focussing on the war. In February and March 1965, SDS organized a series of "Teach-Ins" modeled after earlier Civil Rights seminars. These teach-ins sought to educate large segments of the student population about both the moral and political foundations of America's Vietnam involvement.

As the Vietnam War escalated, the antiwar protests became more raucous. In 1968 protestors occupied the administration building at Columbia University; police used force to evict them. Raids on draft boards in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Chicago soon followed, as activists smeared blood on records and shredded files. In May 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen fired on a group of antiwar protestors at Kent State University, killing four and wounding 16.

As the Vietnam War became more unpopular in the early 1970s, antiwar sentiment and protest began to gain popular acceptance. During the next three decades, protests became a normal reaction to what were believed to be zealous excesses of power by government and other institutions. After the 1960s, other groups have attempted to continue these protest tactics—although most have met with less success. In the 1970s, environmental activists registered their concerns over the ravaging effects of industrial pollution. The environmental movement was led by older conservation organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, as well as several new protests groups. Greenpeace, founded in 1971, protested nuclear testing and campaigned to save whales, other ocean animals, and rain forests around the world. Earth First!, established in 1981, was a more militant group committed to direct action and the sabotage of projects harmful to the environment.

The Feminist Movement came to fruition during the 1970s, spawning hundreds of new protest groups and advancing radical ideas regarding women's role in society. The National Organization for Women (NOW) advanced three demands: equality for women in employment and education; child care centers throughout the nation; and women's control over their own reproduction, including a woman's right to abortion. Women's protest actions ranged from lobbying Congress to more direct action.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a change in protest and activism. Since the 1950s, protest groups in the United States have come from the left of the political spectrum. But the 1980s saw a political and social counterrevolution—probably in response to the rapid upheaval and perceived permissiveness of the 1960s. Conservatives found voices through the Moral Majority, founded in 1979, while the Christian Coalition advanced its views with more religious fervor. Conservatives also utilized journals and research institutions (think tanks) to advance their message. These included publications like the National Review edited by William F. Buckley, and institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. A vigorous anti-abortion protest movement has also been a part of the conservative resurgence. Liberal groups remained active in the 1980s and 1990s, but with much less political support than earlier decades. A nuclear freeze movement, gays and lesbians, and AIDS activists have all been active, but the focus of protest continues to change and new issues evolve.

—David E. Woodard

Further Reading:

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. New York, Atheneum, 1973.

Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York, Vintage Books, 1986.

Goldman, Eric. Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern Reform. New York, Vintage Books, 1955.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. New York, Oxford University Press, 1978.

Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York, The Free Press, 1984.

Walters, Ronald. American Reformers, 1815-1860. New York, Hill and Wang, 1978.

Wells, Tom. The War Within: America's Battle over Vietnam. New York, Henry Holt, 1994.